Wisconsin enjoyed an excess of capable ballhandlers last season, from the incumbent starters Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser to the rising floor general Bronson Koenig off the bench. Adding in the skilled front court the Badgers boasted, an opponent throwing full-court pressure at them was most often a wasted effort born of desperation.
Koenig and Nigel Hayes are the only holdovers who played more than 17 percent of the minutes last year. They're good enough to prevent a hangover campaign this season despite the youth surrounding them. It's timeworn, but true.
Starter: Bronson Koenig, 6-4, Jr.
King. That's what Koenig means in German. And between the lines the junior point guard is the one who will command the Badgers, no question. But what kind of ruler will he be?
The most important storyline heading into the season is whether Koenig can make a leap in his development. Yes, almost every Badger under Bo Ryan makes progress each year. Koenig has worked to improve many aspects of his game. But I'm not talking about taking just another step. Koenig holds the keys to a great Wisconsin season.
His sudden promotion to a starting role after Jackson's injury was fortuitous, both personally and for the program. Instead of facing countless stories over the past few months about how it was his time to shine, Koenig got that out of the way last season. He adjusted to having to try locking down big-time opposing point guards defensively. Now he's a marked man. Opponents have plenty of film on his flaws, how he likes to break his man down then rise and fire in end of clock situations.
Koenig posted the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in school history as a sophomore and currently has the second-best career ratio, but he can be even better as a playmaker. He must become more assertive. Koenig loves to lay in the weeds and get his teammates involved, but UW's offensive engine is going to need to warm up first before going full throttle this year. In addition to taking on more scoring responsibilities, Koenig also will be counted on to be a more vocal leader on a team that lost some big personalities.
Key number: 12.5% - The percentage of made field goals in Koenig's career that have come at the rim.
The one area in which Jackson was superior to Koenig never became much of an issue a year ago because of how lethal the Badger attack was. Koenig guided Wisconsin to the most efficient offense in the KenPom era and was a big part of that himself. He shot 44 percent from deep from the Rutgers game onward and finished 21-2 as a starter. Having a handful of NBA talents certainly helped. Koenig does not have the same luxury now and he must continue to evolve. Will defenders respect his driving ability enough that he can still pull up for those beautiful jumpers at will? Or with unproven players around him, will opponents crowd Koenig physically to prevent him from getting where he wants?
Reserve: Jordan Hill, 6-3, RS-So.
Jordan Hill is a great unknown at this point, with only 25 minutes to his name as a true freshman before redshirting last season. However, from the limited action I've seen, I cannot help but see a bit of Traevon Jackson in him. Like Jackson, Hill has the reputation early in his career that can help the team defensively first and foremost, but also with his overall feel for the game. Hill's confidence in himself has grown. He impressed the team many times last season while imitating opposing players on the scout team, which was especially fun when he got to machine gun shots. Needless to day, I don't think he'll be shy offensively anymore. Thirdly, Hill has reportedly already filled some of the leadership void as an outspoken voice on the court.
There was talk that Hill also has been the frequent target of Bo Ryan's, ahem, "intensity" in practice, taking over that mantle from Sam Dekker. But if Bo is hard on Hill, it's because he sees something there and that should be good enough for all of us. It's just a matter of how consistently that potential will shine through in game situations.
One thing we know is that there won't be a shortage of opportunity. While I fully expect Koenig to lead the team in minutes, Hill will have his hands on the ball quite a bit regardless of who is next to him. If he can mind his shot selection and avoid unforced errors, he will be more than just a relief option for Koenig.
Jordan Smith, 6-3, RS-Sr.
Jackson Bax, 5-11, Fr.
What announcers (and your mom) will still be talking about: Bronson's stylish haircuts
What we should be talking about: every superstitious ritual possible to keep Koenig healthy all year long. Koenig battled a thumb injury as a junior in high school, but has been healthy as a collegian. Fingers crossed. We should also be talking about when Jordan Hill will drop another track. Hill had the most underrated verse of the entire intrasquad rap beef last spring.